Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Vera Atkins: WWII Spy Boss

Vera Closes the Ravensbrück Cases


Dachau Concentration Camp <br /><em>(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)</em>
Dachau Concentration Camp
(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
On March 11, 1946, Vera learned that SS Officer Johann Schwarzhuber, who had worked at Ravensbruck, was detained at a small British prison near the German city of Minden. That prison had been named Tomato prison. It was not named after the vegetable but given the title from an anagram that blended the names of two war crimes investigators.

When Vera arrived, she interrogated Schwarzhuber who identified Lilian Rolfe and Denise Bloch and Violette Szabo from photographs. He recalled Violette Szabo's name. Schwarzhuber had seen the three agents shot and their remains put into the crematorium.

Vera believed the evidence was now solid. She wrote to the London office that the three should have death certificates. She closed the Ravensbruck cases and turned to the agents who had been detained at the Karlsruhe prison.

During March, Vera received a letter from Karlsruhe ex-prisoner Hedwig Muller describing her relationship with "Martine." Muller recalled, "On the first day I could not eat the prison food." Martine said, "You will eat when you are hungry." That prediction came true.

Then Vera received a letter from Frenchwoman Lisa Graf who had been held at Karlsruhe as a political prisoner. Lisa recalled speaking to Martine as well as "Madame Odette Churchill and to Eliane, Yvonne, and Denise." Denise was an alias for SOE agent Andre Borrel. This was the first sighting of Andre by any Karlsruhe witness. Lisa spoke to other Englishwomen but could not recall their names. She saw more than she spoke with and stated that four Englishwomen were transferred toward the beginning of July 1944 for a destination she did not know. One was Denise; another a blonde woman "with black eyes who people said was a Jewish dancer" and who might have been called Dany; a fair, blue-eyed woman who wore a green ribbon in her hair; and a younger women with "blond-red hair and grey eyes." Staying behind at Karlsruhe at the time "were Odette Churchill, Martin Dussautoay, Eliane and Yvonne, who suffered with her legs."

Based on Lisa's recollection, Vera was now certain that a group of four women left in July for the Natzweiler concentration camp. Vera mailed several photographs to Lisa, asking her to examine them to see if she could identify them.

Vera interviewed Natzweiler crematorium stoker Franz Berg. He recalled seeing a group of Englishwomen arrive.

Vera asked him to describe in as much detail as he could each British agent he remembered. After the interview, Vera wrote, "It has now been definitely established that the above mentioned women (Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden, Andre Borrel and Noor Inayat Khan) were killed in the camp of Natzweiler on 6 July 1944."

Vera and other investigators believed that wardress Becker lied when she insisted prison records had been destroyed. They searched Becker's home and the prison. The search of the home proved produced records for every year of WWII. When Vera got them, she hunted for May 1944 when her agents were said to have arrived at the prison. Listed were "Churchill, Odette," "Plewman, Eliane, "Leigh, Vera," Rowden, Diana," and "Beekman, Yolande." In the midst of these familiar names was the unfamiliar "Olschanesky, Sonia." Then she saw "Borrel, Denise" and "Dussautoay, Martine." She could find nothing for Noor Inayat Khan. However, she believed that, since Nora had been born in Moscow, she might have selected the Russian name Sonia Olschanesky as an alias.

Three names were listed as leaving on September 11, 1944: Eliane Plewman, Martine Dussautoy and Yolande Beekman. Other sources indicated they were picked up by the Karlsruhe Gestapo and Vera hunted for those who might know where they were taken.

The SOE extended her search period by another three months.

However, before she could proceed with her search, she had to give evidence at the Natzweiler trial that was held at the Zoological Gardens in Wuppertal, Germany and began May 29, 1946.

Vera was the first witness on the stand. She named four agents killed at Natzweiler: Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden, Andrée Borrel and Noor Inayat Khan.

The verdict for all accused was guilty.

Returning to her search for missing SOE agents, Vera found a statement by a Karlsruhe Gestapo man Christian Ott about four women transported from Karlsruhe to Dachau. Vera thought the four included SOE agents.

Ott recalled that he had expressed surprise to another Nazi officer that women were being sent to Dachau when he had believed the camp was only for men. Ott was shown a telegram from the Reich Security Head Office (RSHA) that stated the women were to be "executed at Dachau" and signed by RSHA head Ernst Kaltenbrunner. Ott elaborated, "The four prisoners had made a good impression on me and I regretted their fate." He tried to give them no clue to it as he chatted with one of the Englishwomen who spoke some German.

After arriving at Dachau, Ott did not see the four again but heard from another man what had happened to them. The four were told they were to be executed. Ott's statement continued, "All four had grown very pale and wept; the major asked whether they could protest against the sentence. The Kommandant declared that no protest could be made against the sentence. The major had then asked to see a priest. The camp Kommandant refused this on the grounds that there was no priest in the camp."

The four were forced to kneel and were killed one after the other with shots through the back of the neck. The major was shot twice as she showed signs of life after the first shot.

Based on his descriptions, Vera closed the cases of Damerment, Yolande Beekman and Eliane Plewman.

Vera returned to England early October 1946.

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